No poetry for a new Albion

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BLACKPOOL. There was a curious lassitude about the opening sessions of the Labour conference. Torrents of hot language spouted from the faith healers of the Winter Garden, but the reaction from the delegates was oddly cool.

People here are watching, waiting, unsure. There is no joy about. In a week which sees National Versification Day, it is worth noting that the Labour Party lacks poetry. There is no sense of what the reformer-rogue John Wilkes called 'the generous plan of freedom', no convincing word-picture about life feeling different, doors opening and great possibilities being unlocked after 15 years. Here, the vivid and self-assured speakers tend to be those, like Benn and Scargill, who are stuck in a timewarp from which there is no escape; the forward-looking speakers tend to sound dull and mechanical. Party bookstalls are another indicator of inner life: Labour's one is sentimental-historical in tone, stuffed with novels, accounts of early and heroic trade- unionism, and biographies of men who never quite made it to office.

Tony Blair has accomplished a lot in a short time, but the overriding impression is of how much remains to be done. A bit of economics here, constitutional reform there, but nothing so far brings it together in the 'New Britain' of the conference slogan. There is satire about Tory failure, but there isn't a vision. We still have Labour. We don't, any longer, have Albion. This is odd, because there is a job for the party which is awesome in scale, and certainly as big as anything it faced during its heyday.

Almost every management guru seems to foresee a world divided into roughly three groups. At the top there will be a relatively small group of highly-qualified, hyperactive high-earners burning themselves out as participants in the global economy. Then comes the mass of less-qualified workers, increasingly competing against their Asian and Eastern European rivals, earning low wages and with little hope of bettering themselves. And below them is the underclass, or what we are now invited to regard as 'the new rabble'. The great challenge for any party of the left is to provide an alternative.

Labour, committed to progressive taxation, more social spending and a minimum wage, clearly recognises this. But it cannot be achieved through the old nation- state, because the state no longer has either the necessary macro- economic power or the local knowledge to bind communities together, for instance by providing the right training in the right places. And Labour has been slow to recognise that. So the question is whether Labour is becoming a party of community, with the pluralism and localism that implies, or whether it is, irredeemably, the party of state bureaucracy.

Much of Labour's language problem, its lack of political poetry, can be blamed on the instinctive statism of so many Labour politicians. It produces a mode of thinking which manages to reek of self-importance and impotence at the same time.

Not all yesterday's speeches were like that. Here, for example, is Robin Cook: 'I strongly believe one of the reasons for the stunted, stagnant performance of the British economy is that Britain is the most centralised country in Europe. With the collapse of the command economies of Eastern Europe, we are the only country with a government that still believes all decisions are best taken in the capital city. But Labour believes local communities have a better idea than Whitehall about how to get their economies moving. Labour will put the tools of economic development in the hands of the local community, local business and the local workforce.'

In a stale conference hall, that was a gust of fresh air. And it is no coincidence that Cook, probably Labour's most profound thinker on the state, is being talked about here as a possible overlord for the party's political reform programme, including European policy. If so, not before time: the issue of the state is a danger as well as an opportunity for Labour.

There is no real sign that the party has yet comprehended what the Tories plan to do to it over what might be called the Condition of Britain question. Signals from Central Office are that the issues of Scottish Home Rule and European Union will be woven together as part of a campaign suggesting that a Labour government would destroy the nation itself. It would be a deeply dishonest tactic. Full-blown Scottish nationalism has been fostered by the intransigence of Tory centralism. The greatest erosions of sovereignty have been through the market or carried out under Conservative governments, including Margaret Thatcher's. And the Downing Street declaration ruling out 'any selfish economic or strategic interest' in Northern Ireland ought to complicate the job of any Tory standing full-square for the principle of British Union.

But those, I fear, are rather intellectual and nave objections. In a time of uncertainty and worry, the thought of 'losing' Scotland and of ceding further powers to Brussels will play well in Middle England, and there is a rich seam of only half-buried English nationalism to mine. A campaign urging voters to 'save your country' is probably already a gleam in some glory-hungry Saatchi writer's eye. And Labour, poor old thing, gives little indication of having noticed.

In the Smith era, it was less of a problem: the former Labour leader was a chunkily uncompromising Scottish devolutionist who yielded to no one in his Europeanism. He was able to make both issues seem unchallengeably sensible. For Labour, he embodied the tricky idea of reassuring radicalism - indeed, his last political conversation was about Scotland, Europe and British nationhood. He had a long and passionate conversation about it all with the French socialist leader Michel Rocard only hours before he died.

But the loss of Smith meant that, sooner or later, those issues would be reopened. They certainly will be, and this is not a challenge the party can funk. Labour cannot respond to a Union Jack election by retreating, any more than Labour can sell a convincing economic vision by sticking with its statist traditions. This suggests a really wide gap between the parties at the next election. Labour is starting to break away from the consensus in a potentially radical way, just at the time when the more uncomprehending of its critics accuse it of standing for nothing. Partly because the party is being boxed in, partly because the world is moving even faster than the party leadership, there can be no going back for Labour.

Why then the sense of dejection among the delegates? Because ordinary Labour people haven't yet seen the way the game is moving and haven't heard from their leaders a coherent explanation of the new radicalism. The party conference gives the strong impression of wallowing far behind the wider political argument - yesterday's absurd theatre about remissions back, confusions about block votes and mutual bitching by union leaders and parliamentarians was a delight for nostalgics everywhere. But it had nothing to do with British politics in the mid-Nineties, and most delegates knew that perfectly well. No more did most of the semi- automatic and ritual Tory-bashing from the platform speakers.

There has been no surprising or fresh language to match the surprising and disorientating times we live in. Of course everyone has been a bit flat. It will be fascinating to see whether Tony Blair lifts and surprises them today.